Eric Kubota Ruminates on Two-Plus Decades as the A’s Scouting Director

Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Kubota is the longest tenured scouting director in MLB, having been promoted to his current position by the Oakland Athletics in 2002. The University of California, Berkeley alum has been with the organization even longer than that; Kubota began working with the A’s in 1984 while still a student. He went on to join the baseball operations department in 1989, serving as assistant scouting director, Pacific Rim coordinator, and then supervisor of international scouting prior to taking the lead role in draft decisions.

His first draft is his most famous — perhaps you’ve heard of Moneyball — but it is by no means Kubota’s only memorable draft, nor his most impactful. Moreover, he has seen a lot change over his time in the industry. That comes with the territory when your scouting experience runs over three decades deep.

———

David Laurila: Looking back, something that stands out from the interview we did in 2009 was you saying, “The more you know about scouting, the more you know about the draft, and the more you know about prospects, the more you find out that there is more to learn.” All these years later, is there still more to learn?

Eric Kubota: “There is, and I feel even stronger about that now. The more I’ve gone through this, the more I realize how hard it is to try to predict the future on these kids, and the more I realize the need for as much information we can get to make informed decisions.”

Laurila: There is certainly a lot more data available now than there was then.

Kubota: “For sure. When I started out as scouting director, we had just started using computers in the scouting department. When I first started with the A’s, there was one computer in the whole office. Cell phones weren’t around. We had voicemail. Things have changed. I think that understanding what of that information is really important is the challenge nowadays. I’m fortunate that I work with a lot of smart people who help distill all that information.”

Laurila: It is said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As impactful as technological advancements have been, I assume that many of scouting’s core tenets are still there?

Kubota: “They are. I mean, I’m unusual in that I was the new, non-baseball guy 30-plus years ago, and now I’m the old school baseball dinosaur. I do think the fundamentals of scouting itself won’t ever be replaceable. Good scouts, good evaluators, the value of experience… those things are all undeniably important. Mixing them with whatever measurables, and whatever other information we can put together, will hopefully help us make one, two, or three percent better decisions. It’s such a hard thing, what we’re trying to do. That’s where we’re at as an industry right now.”

Laurila: To varying degrees, teams have trended away from in-person looks and toward video scouting and metrics. While the latter approach certainly isn’t going away, is an appreciation for traditional scouting coming back into vogue?

Kubota: “I think it is. I mean, if you look at some of the organizations that have been really successful recently, like the Dodgers, they’ve invested pretty heavily on, for lack of a better term, old school scouting infrastructure. Being able to see a player and… I mean, it sounds crazy coming from me, working for the A’s — the old Moneyball team — but there is something to be said for gut feel. The best scouts have an innate feel for players who are going to get better.”

Laurila: Another thing that stands out from our 2009 interview was you saying that there are 30 different clubs and 30 different philosophies. Do you still believe that?

Kubota: “There are probably 30 different nuanced approaches. I think there is a certain commonality, but there is still nuance in how people interpret things.”

Laurila: What about the Oakland A’s approach? Has that changed?

Kubota: “Well, the funny thing about the A’s is that we were kind of hated in baseball in the Moneyball days. We were the ‘anti-scout people’ — which I never really believed. I’ve always said that Billy [Beane] is definitely not anti-scout; he’s anti-bad scout.

“There were periods of time early in the Moneyball days where we swung probably too far to statistics. If anything, we’ve swung back towards the traditional side, which again seems odd that the Oakland A’s would be like that. If you asked around baseball, they would look at our scouting staff and the way we do things, and say we’re more traditional than not.”

Laurila: Which of your drafts stands out the most?

Kubota: “There are a couple of them. In 2012, we took Addison Russell, Matt Olson, Daniel Robertson. We got Boog Powell in the 20th round. Obviously, what has happened with Addison over the last few years has happened. But there was a time when he was considered one of the best young players in baseball. If you think about it, Addison was also really outside of the box for the A’s, being a high school kid from the panhandle of Florida.”

Laurila: Olson, who you took 47th overall in 2012, is a first baseman, and Tyler Soderstrom, who you drafted as a catcher 26th overall in 2020, might end up a first baseman due to questions about his defense. What are your thoughts on taking first baseman in early rounds?

Kubota: “That’s a good question, and it’s going to be particularly pertinent in this year’s draft because of who some of the top college players are. First basemen have always been a bit of a scouting red flag, because there is so much onus on them really performing highly in the big leagues to have value.

“With Olson, we just thought he was the best hitter available, and we took the best hitter. We kind of didn’t worry about the fact that he was a first baseman. Of course, it turns out that he ended up being a top-flight defensive first baseman in addition to having a lot of power.”

Laurila: In 2007, one of your first round picks was a first baseman out of the University of Virginia named Sean Doolittle

Kubota: “He was a good prospect as a hitter. He was also a pitcher — Sean was one of their weekend starters — and we’d seen him a lot over the years. We actually thought that Sean was more hit than power, but after we took him, he ended up having a lot more power than we expected. To be honest, we probably thought as highly of him as Olson as an offensive player. His knee just wouldn’t let him do it. Pitching, at that point, was kind of a last resort. And he was so good in that role, really right out of the chute. That’s a testament to Sean.”

Laurila: Jumping to last year’s draft, you took a shortstop with your top pick. What can you tell me about Jacob Wilson?

Kubota: “Just a really good baseball player. He’s more physical than we expected in a lot of ways. If you look at him on the field — at least this was my first impression — you think, ‘He’s kind of skinny.’ There is an amazing talent for putting the bat on the baseball. He can turn the bat around and make good contact on the barrel. He’s just got an innate feel for contact.”

Laurila: How do he and Max Muncy compare?

Kubota: “Muncy is more physical, and probably not as pure a hitter as Wilson. I don’t want Max to get mad at me, but Jacob is a really good pure shortstop, too. I think Max is going to have the ability to play shortstop, but also play third, second, or wherever we need to play him. They’re both really good athletes, and they were actually high school teammates.”

Laurila: Muncy’s strikeout numbers have been less than ideal. To what extent can you project contact rate, and to what extent can it be improved?

Kubota: “Those are the kinds of conversations we have with player development all the time. If you ask them, the most important thing from their standpoint is the ability to make contact. From our standpoint, we’re hoping that there is some upside to that contact. That’s the fine line we walk.

“One of the reasons we maybe walked past an Aaron Judge… I mean, our evaluations were really strong, but the fact that he struck out so much in college was a bit of a red flag. I think we learned a little bit from that. At the same time, guys who strike out generally strike out… I guess I’m maybe talking out of both sides of my mouth.”

Laurila: Judge went a handful of picks after you took Billy McKinney in 2013. Does he rank as your biggest miss?

Kubota: “No, and I’m probably not the only one that would tell you a story like this on Mike Trout. Normally, when we’re in the draft room and the first round is going along, we’re settled on what we’re going to do. We have the board set up, and we take them in that order. With Trout, we basically had conversations up to the last second — but then we kind of just went back to what we’ve always done. At that point, we took the safer college guy, which was Grant Green. He played in the big leagues, but he’s obviously not Mike Trout.

“So, Trout was our biggest miss, and I hate saying that because of how close we were to taking him. I’m sure a lot of other drafts rooms will say the same thing, but I know how much discussion we had.”

Laurila: Jumping back to Muncy, there are obviously two players with that name. As a matter of fact, you drafted both Max Muncys.

Kubota: “We did, and the crazy thing is they have the same birthdays. I think the Dodgers’ Max Muncy was part of the 2012 draft where we took Addison Russell and Matt Olson. Again, it was a good draft.”

Laurila: Your 2018 first rounder opted to play football instead of professional baseball. Is there anything you can say about Kyler Murray that you haven’t said numerous times previously?

Kubota: “Not really. What I will always say is that we’re just bad football scouts. I mean, if you’d have heard how many times his height was brought up, along with ‘You don’t see guys like that playing in the NFL,’ blah, blah, blah. And I did say to Kyler prior to the draft — [Oakland GM] David Forst can attest to this — ‘What are you going to do when you win the Heisman Trophy?’ It was kind of tongue in cheek, but it turned out to be prophetic. I wish he wouldn’t have won the Heisman.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
synco
3 months ago

The Aaron Judge anecdote is a li’l weird without the context – the A’s did draft him, out of high school in 2010 in the 31st round as one of those “hopeful” signs people used to do back in the day. The Yankees then went on and drafted him as a comp pick (for losing Nick Swisher, ironically) in 2013.